Comedy Legend & Groundbreaker: Caroline Hirsch

Thirty years ago a new cabaret act opened on Eighth Avenue in Chelsea. New York didn’t really notice. Just another cabaret, after all.

The couple starting the club, Carl Christian and Bob Stickney, had approached a friend, Caroline Hirsch, to both invest and to give the place a woman’s name. After muddling through for a year or so, Hirsch decided her namesake should become a full-time comedy club.

“Cabaret didn’t move me,” she says. “It was fun, it wasn’t tapping a pop culture nerve.”

The city had a few notable stand-up clubs — the Improv and Catch a Rising Star among them — but Hirsch established a template that made Caroline’s a household name in comedy.

Instead of showcasing up-and-coming comics running through short sets, Hirsch created a headliner room, with long sets for talent that was breaking through on television. “I was flying by the seat of my pants,” admits Hirsch, who had no show business experience on stage or off.

She came from retail, having worked at the department store Gimbels. “Being a buyer meant giving a customer what they want,” she says, but the Brooklyn native also knew from her childhood spent watching “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” that acts who performed on television provided free publicity.

“I remember Johnny Carson saying David Steinberg would be performing at Mr. Kelly’s in Chicago,” she says. “When I got Jay Leno as my first act, he was coming in to be on David Letterman and I got him to mention the club.”

Caroline’s would soon tout a who’s who of rising comedians, from Pee-wee Herman to Jerry Seinfeld to Richard Lewis. In 1987, Hirsch moved to a bigger home at the South Street Seaport. That was just a first step.

Within two years, Hirsch’s club had a weekly television series called “Caroline’s Comedy Hour” on A&E — the writing staff featured young bucks like Jon Stewart and Louis C.K. The show, which won a CableAce Award, brought even bigger crowds to the club. “Nobody talked about brands then but that show was very important for us,” Hirsch says.

It also underscores why this particular club survived an explosion in competition, recessions and new trends in comedy. Hirsch has more than just an eye for funny folks, she has a shrewd business sense, be it for real estate, interior design or staff.

“I’m a person of instinct, that’s what I have, and I trust my gut,” she says.

By 1989, Hirsch was tired of being next door to the Fulton Fish Market. Ian Schraeger invited her to take over the famous Billy Rose Diamond Horseshoe space in the basement of the Paramount Hotel, which he was making over.

The room needed too much renovation but it started her thinking about Times Square; while New York was at its nadir and the neighborhood was still seedy, the New 42nd Street non-profit formed in 1990 and Hirsch, trusting her vision about the city, saw an area on the make.

In 1992, Caroline’s moved to Broadway and 49th Street, in a new office building that replaced an old theater and needed an entertainment component. It wasn’t just location, location, location. Hirsch created an upscale, elegant ambience — in food, space and design — that stood in stark contrast to the cramped, red brick wall comedy clubs cropping up everywhere.

“I wanted a room with lower ceilings, which is good for comics, that played well but that didn’t look like a comedy club,” she says.

Her new 300-seat room and 100-seat bar won a prestigious award from the American Institute for Architecture for “outstanding building interior.” “It’s 20 years old now and it still looks pretty contemporary,” she says.

While sticking to her headliner brand, in 1993 she also introduced a New Talent Night, which helped break out performers like Jim Gaffigan and Greg Giraldo. (The latter, however, represents one rare misstep — Hirsch ventured into new territory by becoming his manager. It didn’t pan out. “That’s a hand-holding business,” she says. “I’d rather produce.”)

The following year, Hirsch made one of her best — but least heralded — decisions, hiring Louis Faranda. She’d known Faranda for years and when Catch a Rising Star closed she snatched him up. The customers may not know the general manager’s name but he is the man who oversees the details and books the talent that make this club run.

“I was thinking of getting out of the business but admired Caroline and what she had done for the business,” Faranda says. “If someone headlines here it resonates for them all over the country.”

Through the years, Hirsch contemplated expanding and was wooed by Las Vegas hotel owners. “I never felt comfortable,” she says, knowing that even having Faranda here, if she spread herself too thin,”things could go haywire so quickly.”

Instead, she found other ways to grow — a 20th anniversary event at Carnegie Hall gave her a chance to work with the biggest stars from her past and inspired the New York Comedy Festival, which is now in its eighth year.

“It’s good for relationships in the industry and it puts the focus on the club, which produces everything,” Hirsch says.

HIRSCH’S CAREER TIMELINE:

1981: Caroline’s opens, initially as a cabaret club, at 8th Avenue and 26th Street in Chelsea.

1982: Jay Leno performs there, among the first comedy acts that Caroline Hirsch books. Among the performers who would follow in the early years are Jerry Seinfeld, Steven Wright, Pee Wee Herman, Richard Lewis, Jon Stewart and Denis Leary.

1983:The cabaret is replaced by a pure comedy club, replacing the standard “showcase” format with one that features headliners, frequently ones who have already appeared on televison.

1987: Too popular for its original space, Caroline’s moves into bigger digs at the South Street Seaport.

1989: A&E launches “Caroline’s Comedy Hour,” a weekly program that runs until 1993.

1992: Having again outgrown its surroundings, Caroline’s moves to Broadway, opening a 10,000-square foot, 300-seat space at Broadway and 49th Street.

1993: Caroline’s, best known for its headliners, institutes a New Talent Night, which helps launch the careers of Jim Gaffigan and Greg Giraldo.

2003: Caroline’s and Caroline Hirsch celebrate two decades in the comedy business by finally making it to Carnegie Hall for a star-studded evening.

2004: Caroline’s launches the New York Comedy Festival.

2007: Caroline’s and the New York Comedy Festival begins its Stand Up For Heroes benefit to raise funds for the Bob Woodruff Foundation.

2011: The New York Comedy Festival expands to Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island and announces a three-year extension of its partnership with Comedy Central.

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